Why Negotiating with the Taliban Is a Really Bad Idea

The Taliban is no IRA. Diplomacy won't convince this prickly nemesis to magically disarm and deradicalize.

Washington has finally admitted the obvious: the United States and its allies are negotiating with the Taliban. Seems like a no brainer: an agreement committing the Taliban to cease violence and distance itself from al-Qaeda would make it possible for U.S. troops to leave the country with the impression that ten years of campaigning in “the graveyard of empires” has not been in vain. But negotiating a way out of Afghanistan is far more complex. Even in the best of cases—say, the successful demobilization of the IRA in 1998—terrorist groups don’t merely magically disarm and deradicalize overnight. And the Taliban is a particularly prickly nemesis.

After the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, the pacification of the IRA became something of a model for dealing with insurgent groups. Those involved in brokering the deal seemed to believe that it was possible to copy their success in quite different settings. For instance, Hugh Orde, the Police Chief of Northern Ireland, urged the British government in 2008 to start negotiations with al-Qaeda, positive that there was a serious possibility that the two sides would straighten things out. This same hopefulness carried Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to the Basque Country, where he played the preposterous role of peacemaking expert, lecturing the Basques on the importance of including all parties—even the extremist ones—in the peace process.

However, scholarly analyses, providing a healthy counterweight to the undue optimism of the Northern Ireland model, have shown that the success of the negotiations in Northern Ireland was highly contingent on the specific context on the conflict. That said, there is one important lesson for Afghanistan that policy makers should take away from the pacification of the IRA, although not the one promulgated by the negotiation enthusiasts: the end to the conflict in Northern Ireland shows that the pacification of an insurgent group requires a serious post-conflict effort to bring the fighters to lay down their arms. It took the specially appointed Independent International Commission on Decommissioning several years before it was convinced the IRA had definitively demobilized. And even so, a few years after the Belfast Agreement, the UK and Ireland agreed on the founding of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which kept an eye on paramilitary activities that still took place.

Of course, at this point we can only speculate as to what a deal with the Taliban would entail, but anything along the lines of Clinton’s demands requires a monitoring and sanctioning regime. In this sense, negotiations with the Taliban are a way in, not a way out.

After all, weapons decommissioning requires military presence, especially with a group like the Taliban, which is unreliable as a signatory to an agreement as it is not a monolithic entity that can be counted on to loyally obey the orders of a leading center. In fact, the Taliban is made up of several factions, all with their own interests and consequently with their own views on a peace agreement.

There is the religiously inspired hard-core contingent, mostly associated with Mullah Omar, but there are also factions that are more interested in making money by trading drugs. Yet another segment is made up of factions that work with the Taliban, but under their own organizational aegis. Getting all these groups to fall in line with the terms of an agreement with an external party will be far from easy, and the word of the Taliban’s leadership may turn out to mean little.

Compare this to the Northern Ireland conflict, where the Provisional IRA controlled the entire republican movement (barring some splinter groups that became the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA). A way around the problem of the reliability of the Taliban could be to strike a deal with individual Taliban members about reintegration, an option Clinton hinted at in October last year. Unfortunately, it will be virtually impossible to check whether all “socially reintegrated” Taliban members are keeping their part of the bargain, a question that is all the more relevant given that Afghan society holds few viable alternatives.

The second complicating factor is the role of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service that has a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards extremist Islamist groups and played a highly dubious role in the hunt for Bin Laden. According to recent reports, the ISI, in an early attempt to secure its position in post-ISAF Afghanistan, is already pushing the insurgents to keep fighting and stay out of any peacemaking efforts. This is again a stark contrast to Northern Ireland, where the cooperation of a neighboring country with a stake in the conflict—i.e. Ireland—was crucial for the resolution of the conflict.

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